United is making another push toward environmentally friendly flying. On June 5, the carrier operated its “flight for the planet” between Chicago and Los Angeles to showcase the airline’s forward-thinking efforts. By the end of that week, the airline had crunched the numbers on how the trip differed from a typical day in the skies.

In terms of consumption, the flight between Chicago and LAX saved an additional 3.3 percent of fuel over a typical flight, thanks to conservative engine use during taxi and a gradual descent into the Los Angeles basin. The airline also offset 40 metric tons of carbon dioxide to make up for the aircraft’s fuel consumption, which was augmented with 30 percent biofuel for this particular flight.

Waste reduction and elimination was also a big initiative on the flight, which was ostensibly operated as commercial service — most passengers on board didn’t know about the eco-initiative. Over the course of Wednesday’s service, first-class meals were delivered with compostable flatware and plates, while cups for hot drinks throughout the cabin were also served in recyclable cups. Most wax-lined cups typical to an airline or coffeehouse, unfortunately, aren’t recyclable.

Post-flight, United determined that it had created only 21.5 pounds of waste, down from 65 pounds typically collected on an aircraft of that size. The majority of that waste collected was also brought on board by passengers, suggesting that United had tightened its belt even further than the data suggest.

Now United’s challenge lies in turning some of these short-term initiatives into widespread policies across the airline. After all, last Wednesday’s event was heavy on the marketing and light on plans for future mainline adoption of the practices.

Potential Biofuel expansion

On the fuel side of that battle, United was the first airline to use biofuel on regularly scheduled flights in 2016. But it will come up against limitations on how much biofuel is legally allowed to be mixed into traditional jet fuel — a ratio that’s currently capped at 50:50. Each airport also handles its fuel supply differently, which United will have to handle.

At LAX, where United operates its biofuel-forward flights, 1 percent of all fuel at the airport is biofuel and every aircraft pulls from the same well. Last Wednesday’s flight was a test case for establishing a second biofuel hub at Chicago’s O’Hare International, according to Bloomberg.

“These biofuel test flights help us better understand any changes or updates needed to the fuel infrastructure to support sourcing biofuel. We’re introducing new companies to the supply chain and need to know where/how they fit into the existing processes,” Aaron Stash, senior manager, environmental strategy and sustainability tells Skift. “Beyond the infrastructure, the cost of the fuel will certainly factor in. If other states (e.g. California) provide greater incentives to bring biofuel to their facilities, then that’s where the fuel will go. Raising awareness of the viability of these programs also helps drive the conversation at the state and local levels.”

Permanent changes to cabin service will also pose hurdles. While it’s easy to change suppliers on straws, getting passengers to regularly choose environmentally friendly meal options (i.e. no beef) or use compostable flatware may be problematic for many established business travelers.

United has some industry momentum on its side. Already, many carriers have moved to ban plastic straws while hotels are scrambling to find an alternative to plastic shampoo bottles. As criticism over plastics grows, the pressure is on to provide alternative materials for passenger use.

Net Effect

Yet within the travel industry, airlines have the unique challenge of tackling tight weight and space constraints. As Skift previously reported, alternative items might be more eco-friendly than plastic but are heavier in weight would require the plane to use more fuel, which comes at both a financial and environmental cost.

So far, neither American nor Delta have pushed eco-friendly initiatives as hard as United has. While United leads the way, it remains to be seen whether the airline industry as a whole can make true headway within a paradigm that inherently has a big impact on the environment.

Grant Martin [gm@skift.com] curates the Skift Business of Loyalty newsletter. He is director of product marketing at TripActions. Skift emails the newsletter every Monday.

Photo Credit: United pilots stand in front of the "flight for the planet" aircraft flown on June 5, 2019, from Chicago to Los Angeles. United Airlines